William Wellman’s Forbidden Hollywood – DVDs for the Week

23 March, 2009 (13:47) | by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Essays, Pre-code Cinema | By: Sean Axmaker

The studios are finally listening to me! Okay, maybe not, but fifteen months ago I did publish my wish list of Dream DVD Special Editions and Box Sets on GreenCine. Some of those wishes have since come true: Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition (with all three cuts of the film), The Films of Budd Boetticher (featuring all five Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott films made for Columbia), A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell) and Murnau, Borzage and Fox (a far more ambitious project than even I wished for). And one of my “Honorable Mentions” was a “Forbidden Hollywood” collection dedicated to the pre-code films of William Wellman, notably Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road. Yes, I know that these have been in works, in one form or another, since before I even started the piece, but there is still a little satisfaction in seeing my dreams come true, and this week another dream comes to life: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, subtitled “Six classic, provocative films directed by master filmmaker William Wellman.”

forbiddenhollywood3I’ve never been of the camp that embraced Wellman as a “master filmmaker,” though I have always appreciated him as a talented pro with good instincts and clean, no-nonsense direction. He was part of that early breed of two-fisted directors who drifted into the movies from more adventurous jobs. In Wellman’s case, he had been a member of the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I and was a flying instructor for the American Air Corps in San Diego when Douglas Fairbanks asked him to appear in one of his films, The Knickerbocker Buckaroo. Acting left a bad taste in his mouth but directing intrigued him and he worked his way up through the ranks, becoming a director in 1923 and jumping to the front ranks of the industry with Wings (1927), an assignment he reportedly received largely on the strength of his combat experience. They needed a war flier to helm the film and Wellman gave them the most impressive aerial spectacle the movies had seen. He made more than 80 films in every genre over the course of four decades, but he showed his most interesting directorial muscle in war films (Story of G.I. Joe) and westerns (Yellow Sky, Track of the Cat) and adventures (Beau Geste), while his distinctive snappy, hard-knuckle sensibility came out in urban crime (The Public Enemy) and showbiz pictures (A Star is Born, Roxie Hart).

But for my money, he was never more interesting than in the early sound era, where his energy and audacity powered over a dozen short, sharp, street-smart films filled with saucy sexiness and startling violence and mixed with varying measures of social commentary. Six of those films are collected on this four-disc set (Wellman’s pre-code classics The Public Enemy and Night Nurse have previously been released, the former separately and in the Warner Gangsters Collection, the latter in Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Two) and they are something else, films strewn with wild melodrama, romantic triangles, brawny action and some of the sexiest scenes of heavy petting and passionate smooching you’ve seen out of old Hollywood, with more frank sexuality more suggested than shown but there is no mistaking the suggestions.

Other Men’s Women, with Mary Astor married to engineer Regis Toomey but falling in love with his best friend (Grant Withers), is set around the railroad yards and Wellman fills the film with scenes of the men and machines in action. The film opens on Toomey leaping off the moving engine to grab a bite at the local diner (where Joan Blondell serves and flirts), counting the cars going by simply by the rhythm of the clicks on the track, so he run out and catch the caboose and hike back to his station. That’s the kind of professionalism that Wellman loves so well in his films. James Cagney is but a supporting role here (it was before he Wellman turned him in to a star in The Public Enemy) and he’s a firecracker in his few scenes, whether he’s swaggering down a line of train cars are dancing his way into a night on the town with his girl. But the story isn’t his, it’s the friendship snapped over a woman and the tragedy that comes over blows while they’re supposed to be driving an engine. At least it’s a tragedy in this (Well)man’s world.

Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent

Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent

Barbara Stanwyck is a different kind of professional in The Purchase Price, a torch singer who flees an amorous bootlegger (Lyle Talbot). “I’m bugs about ya,” he proclaims. “I’d marry you myself if I wasn’t already married.” That’s her cue to flee and she ends up taking the place of a hotel maid and becoming a mail-order bride for a North Dakota farmer (George Brent), who gets the ring and the marriage license in one stop so they can get a quick marriage and get back to his farm, which is on the verge of failing. That’s fast even for a fast girl like Stanwyck and she boots him out of the wedding bed (after parading around in lingerie – Wellman knows how to delivers the sex) and then spends the rest of the film trying to lure him back, while also fending off the lascivious banker (who is trying to foreclose on the farm and on the farmer’s wife) and that pesky bootlegger who manages to track her down yet again. Just why she stays with Brent is a fair question – he’s a stiff of an actor and a lug of a character, the moth to Stanwyck’s flame, with about as much personality. More convincing is the self-worth she discovers in becoming part of the community and a partner in her husband’s enterprise.

Frisco Jenny and Midnight Mary (both 1932) chart the inevitable descent of two good girls into criminal lives. Ruth Chatterton is Frisco Jenny, the daughter of a bawdy saloon owner who loses everything in the San Francisco Earthquake (including the father of her yet-to-be-born child). After a stint in the Salvation Army, she follows another lesson from the good book: The Lord helps those who help themselves. “It may not be the right way, but it’ll be my way.” And so she takes over the brothel business in San Francisco while her son grows up with a society family and becomes a crusading District Attorney determined to shut down the very vice that his mother controls. The earthquake scene is a marvelous spectacle on a budget (debris falling from studio sets and a few miniatures are intercut with archival footage of the real thing) and the scenes of the homeless lining up along the streets with what’s left of their possessions echoes with the armies of homeless in the 1932 depression. But what makes this such a gut punch is the grim detail of Jenny’s sacrifice to the son who doesn’t even know who she really is, an act that puts Stella Dallas to shame.

Loretta Young puts on her tough girl act, the cocky, been-around-the-block pose of street smarts and world-weary experience, for Midnight Mary, a hardened woman on trial for murder who, while awaiting the jury to make their verdict, flashes back on the hard knocks that brought her current predicament. Wellman jumps from one defining event to another, skipping through the years (identified by the camera tracking along the volumes of records lining the kindly court clerk’s office) and her spiral into naïve good-time girl and criminal’s moll. Scenes of Young sprawled out in the back of speeding car with limbs tangled around a boy and allowing a man to stroke her calf while he propositions her leave little question as to how she survives the lean years, yet Young’s open face and girlish smile give her an innocence even in these circumstances, like a naïve girl willing to believe that this is the road to true love. Franchot Tone is a boozy playboy who saves her from a vice raid and gives her a second chance, cleaning up his own act to become worthy of her in the process. That’s all before the third act complications and a round of self-sacrifice that brings us back to the murder rap.

Wild Boys of the Road poster

Wild Boys of the Road poster

Like a lot of early sound films, the pacing of these films – and in fact all of the films on this set – is odd and off-balance, stopping to linger over a piece of action or an indecent proposal (there are many of those here) and then leaping ahead hours, days, weeks, even months to check back in. Wellman isn’t about dramatic tension so much as dynamism and Stanwyck has the sass and spunk to drive her scenes with an energy and attitude that gives them a real volatility. He also brings a real punch to dramatic action and a momentum to his drama. It doesn’t take long for a scene to snowball until it feels things are careening out of control. But Wellman also has an odd tendency to allow the dramatic action to wind down and dissipate before he dissolves to some marker (a calendar page, a newspaper article, a map) that signals the next chapter of their story. He ends many scenes on the silence of surrender, of our protagonist grudgingly giving in to the irresistible force washing over him like a tsunami. Instead of a howl of defiance, it’s a sigh of futility and a retreat to the next attempt. I’ve always found that predilection frustrating in comedies like Nothing Sacred and Magic Town, where it would dissipate the momentum of his comic energy. But in these films it feels, if not appropriate, at least in tune with sensibility of the drama. Nowhere is this more pronounced than the two mad masterpieces of depression-era outrage and helplessness that complete the collection: Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road (both 1933).

Heroes for Sale (1933) opens in the mud and rain and gloom of World War I and the attrition of trench warfare and ends on the tramp armies of the depression huddling together in the mud and the rain. Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) is almost back where he started fifteen years later, but the road in between is a nightmare worthy of Paul Muni in I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Tom is no fugitive. He’s a war hero whose glory got pinned to another. He’s a former POW with a morphine addiction that lands him in a sanitarium. He’s an inventor whose patent ends up putting his colleagues and neighbors out of work. He’s a humanist and an idealist who compassion and heroism ends up losing him his family and his freedom. The schizophrenic tone twists as much as the plot – light comic relief is slammed by brute tragedy and no good deed goes unpunished – but Wellman’s gritty sensibility makes it simmer. His direction of a labor riot is harrowing. Yet for all the injustice and hypocrisy (not just the judgmental authority figures, but a raving communist who transforms into an arrogant capitalist and blames the poor for their poverty the minute he strikes it rich), the film is also filled with generous folks and honest people, all sorts of men and women just trying to get by in bad times and offering a hand out to those in need. The film ends on the grim march of homeless armies tramping the rails for work in the depths of the depression, but after all of that, Tom is still optimistic and he sticks out his chin to walk on, just daring fate to take another poke at it.

The portrait of hobo armies of the unemployed is only the last act of a very busy Heroes for Sale but it becomes the core of Wild Boys of the Road, which chronicles the plight of kids who have fled home to find work and end up a homeless army riding the rails around the country. As the film opens, they’re just fun-loving jazz-age teens with a junky jalopy (it uses a rock on a rope for an emergency break) and all the usual fun-loving activities. But around the façade of normalcy is the anxiety of unemployment and poverty: Tommy (Edwin Phillips) can’t even afford a ticket to a dance and Eddie’s parents out of work and broke. So they hit the rails to look for work, meet Sally (Dorothy Coonan, later Mrs. Wellman), who has dressed up as a boy to avoid predators, and find themselves driven from the trains by railroad dicks and driven from city railyards and teenage shantytowns. What they endure is harrowing: rape, dismemberment, riots, not to mention poverty and starvation in a world that would rather turn its back on the kids and send them along to the next stop. It’s a cinematic blast of anger and outrage and exasperation sprung from the immediacy of the depression. Wellman doesn’t flinch from the ordeal, but for every predator is a sympathetic adult. Even some of those on the other end of the fire hose, blasting the Hooverville Junior into splinters and sends the kids fleeing to the railcars, looking to the next stop for work, a meal, or just a place to stop for awhile.

The homeless armies march on

The homeless armies keep marching on in "Heroes For Sale"

The set also features the 1996 documentary Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick and a revision of Richard Schickel’s 1973 documentary “The Men Who Made the Movies: William Wellman,” upgraded in 2007 for Turner Classic Movies. Schickel’s documentary is grounded in his terrific interview with Wellman, whose stories about his career have more than a touch of self promotion but are fabulously entertaining and give a real sense of the man behind the films. The revision appears limited to upgrading the original film clips with remastered clips from the Warner library and the new narration (unidentified, but it sounds like Sydney Pollack). There are commentary tracks on three films: Jeffrey Vance and Tony Marietta on Midnight Mary, John Gallagher on Heroes for Sale and Frank Thompson and William Wellman Jr. on Wild Boys of the Road. Also features original trailers for each film and archival cartoons and short subjects from the era, including three comic mysteries starring Donald Meek as S.S. Van Dyne’s detective Dr. Crabtree.

For more views and reviews:

Dave Kehr writes on the set in the New York Times here.

Sam Adams takes a look for the LA Times here.

For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.

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